Proper 19 Year C, Luke 15:1-10
The Good Shepherd is one of my favorite parables, and I think it is for many of us. In part there is this beautiful scene in which we see ourselves as protected by Jesus. We as Christians are cloistered together in a beautiful green pasture on a warm summer day with a gentle breeze blowing. Christ is off in the distance making sure there are no wolves to disturb us. If a sheep wanders too fare and gets lost Jesus goes and looks for us relentlessly. Then we all join in the party when that person is found and returned.
But I ask you, is this what Christianity is about? Relaxing in the sun while we are kept safe from harm’s way? Where we know that if we do wander away the Shepherd will find us? And what about the parable of the lost coin come directly on the heels of this story? Are they related?
If we look at the two parables they are really the same story told in two ways. A person has a certain number of things; 99 sheep, 10 silver coins. Each of them loose one. The shepherd and the woman each search relentlessly for the item until they find it. Then each of them throw a party and rejoice with their friends. Since the stories are the same and their meanings are the same than any solution to one of these parables must also work with the second.
The parables Jesus tells are usually directed at us; we somehow fit into them. So who are we in this parable; which character portraits us best? The sheep, or the shepherd; the coins or the woman.
Let’s look at the sheep. If we are the sheep, what are we doing; lazing around the hill side munching grass, staying safe from the wolves? The story doesn’t say what the sheep are doing, but isn’t this kind of what sheep do? Likewise, if we are the coins, what are we doing? Sitting in a sack or a purse, staying safe and waiting to be used? Jangling up against each other, getting bumped around and scratched? This almost makes more sense than the sheep because when we gather there is often some friction between us. Yet it really doesn’t make much sense either. In either case we are not really doing anything. When did Christ ever tell us not to do anything? Or that we were to be safe? So I don’t think we in these stories are represented by the 99 sheep or the 9 coins.
Could we be the lost coin or the lost sheep? Again, in either case, the story doesn’t say what we are doing, we are just lost. A lost coin surely isn’t doing anything. It isn’t even actively hiding or running away. It isn’t the coins fault that it is lost. We often think about this metaphor as meaning spiritually lost. Yes, there are such people that need to be found. They need to find a bearing in life and discover who God made them to be. They may not even know where to begin to find their spiritual center. But I’d say, by the mere fact that you are here listening to me, you are not spiritually lost, at least not completely. Even if you feel that you are lost I think with some searching and with some effort you can find your way back. You don’t have to wait for the shepherd to find you; you have enough resources to begin this journey. So again in these two metaphors I don’t think we are the lost sheep or the lost coin either.
These metaphors don’t end with the finding of the coin or the sheep. After they are found there is a party where the person invites their friends to joining in the celebration. It says that the lady with a coin “calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me.’” I don’t know if you have noticed but parties, especially great parties of friend and neighbors, are not exactly free. How is she going to pay for such a party? She is going to run down the street to B&B (a local grocery) and buy what she need using the coin she just found. The shepherd on the other had can’t just run down to the corner store and buy what he needs. So how is he going to through a party for his friends and neighbors? He is going to have roast lamb. They will eat, drink and be merry. So again I don’t think we are the lost.
There is only one character left in these metaphors; the shepherd and the woman. Have you ever considered that this is who Christ is saying we are to be? When we consider ourselves as the shepherd or the woman, desperately searching, we are the ones out in the world looking for the lost. The spiritually lost, those who do not know who God is in their lives. Or who have known God but can’t find their way back into a community where they are loved. It is not only Christ who loves us but we also love each other for no other reason than this is what Christians do. So when we find the lost sheep and coins, we bring them back into the fold or the purse. In the fold they are fed spiritually and physically, they are recreated, born again knowing that they are more than simply a human being. They are children of God. These sheep grow up to become shepherds and they go out spreading the good news and finding the lost. Much as the coin itself is welcomed back by the woman and her friends.
All the people of God, like the coins, are treasures to be kept safe and secure, but we cannot hold on to them keeping them safe in a purse for ever. At some point they need to go out in the world, where they can bring joy to others, where they can help build the kingdom of God. These coins are expending energy for building this kingdom and it is not easy. We have to work hard searching, sweeping, going out into the wilderness, using the gifts God has given each one of us.
Next week, on September 18, we celebrate Invitation Sunday. Between now and then is an opportunity for you to search and find people who are looking for a church home, or those who might be exploring God in their lives. I encourage you to bring a friend, or even a stranger, on this day. We will have our usual third Sunday potluck, yet in some real way for our new guests it will be like the celebrations expressed in these parables, in which we celebrate the return of people back into the house of God.
It can be hard to invite people. We can be afraid of rejection. And to be honest many will say no. But the truth is there are also many others that are just waiting to be invited to come with you to church. So I wonder if we can be less like sheep, all milling about, and more like shepherds out in the world searching.